The Post-Divorce-Parenting Glossary

Divorced-Parenting Term


What is abandonment?

Abandonment is an act where someone leaves a family situation and the duties that come with it.  Abandonment may be with or without "cause", and there are three different types abandonment that are important in family law.  These are:

  • Marital abandonment
  • Child abandonment
  • Child custody abandonment

We will address each of these types of abandonment, but the main focus of this article will be on the third type of abandonment, which is child custody abandonment by noncustodial parents after a divorce or separation.

What is marital abandonment?

In family law, marital abandonment describes the situation when a spouse leaves the marital domicile and does not return. When at-fault divorce laws existed, marital abandonment was one of the possible marital misconduct issues that would be grounds for divorce.  Because all U.S. states have adopted no-fault divorce laws, it is not necessary to prove fault in order to divorce.  Still, marital abandonment may potentially lead to an unfavorable outcome for the spouse who leaves.

What are the two types of marital abandonment?

Marital abandonment can be defined as either criminal or constructive.   Defining the type of marital abandonment has occurred depends on whether or not the abandoning spouse has just cause.

Criminal Abandonment
Criminal abandonment is marital abandonment where the spouse who left the marriage did not have "just cause".  Criminal abandonment does not mean that the person who abandons the other will be punished by jail or other criminal methods.  Rather, criminal abandonment means the person may be held financially responsible for the other person after that person leaves the marriage.  For example, assume a person has a spouse who is special needs and the other spouse decides to abandon the marriage, criminal abandonment has taken place.  A family court will not force the couple to remain married; however, the person who abandoned the marriage might incur significant spousal support obligations because of the criminal abandonment that has taken place.

Constructive abandonment
Constructive abandonment, which may be a type of emotional marital abandonment, has to do with one spouse giving "just cause" to the other to leave the marriage.  Withholding sex, abuse, adultery, or a lack of financial support are all possible causes that might lead their partner to abandon the marriage with "just cause".

Proving constructive abandonment is probably legally immaterial.  Even if the spouse can prove grounds for constructive abandonment, it likely will not matter, as most states have no-fault divorce laws.  If either spouse wants a divorce, the courts are likely to grant it regardless of who is at fault.

What is child abandonment?

When a parent leaves a child without enough care, supervision, support, or parental contact for an excessive period of time it is also referred to as child abandonment.  Committing child abandonment is a criminal offense.  Note that child abandonment and child custody abandonment should not be confused; they are two entirely different situations.  Child abandonment is committed by the primary caregiver, while child custody abandonment is when the noncustodial parent after a divorce or separation, ceases to have contact or involvement in their children's life.

What is child custody abandonment?

A different form of abandonment can take place in a child custody situation.  This type of "child custody" abandonment might occur if the noncustodial parent avoids contact with his or her children and fails to pay support.  Different states have different laws in place regarding how to handle this type of abandonment.  Such abandonment can have a profoundly negative effect on the children, as they feel unwanted by one of their parents.

What can cause child custody abandonment?

Parents who become estranged from their children, do so for a variety of reasons, and the effects of this type of abandonment on a children can be incredibly difficult for children to deal with.

Parental Alienation
Parental alienation is any time on parent communicates something negative about the other parent where the children can hear it.  Parental alienation can be subtle remarks or blatant attempts to emotionally separate their child's bond with the alienated parent.  If parental alienation is allowed to go on of r a significant period of time parental alienation syndrome (PAS) may occur.

Low Self-Esteem
When the noncustodial parent begins to feel as if their role as a parent is insignificant, this low self-esteem may lead that parent to abandon their relationship with their children.  To avoid this problem, custodial parents should help promote the child's relationship with their other parent.  Children who feel abandoned by one parent often suffer depression because of it, and in fact, child custody abandonment can be more difficult for a child to contend with than the death of a parent.

Uncooperative Custodial Parents
Most custody cases give both the primary custodial parent and the noncustodial parent joint legal custody.  This means both are entitled to the same rights with regard to making long-term decisions.  Yet, as often happens, the custodial parent does not attempt share the long-term decision-making role with the non-custodial parent, and the non-custodial parent may not realize that they have that right.  Eventually, the non-custodial parent is pushed out of their parenting role and out of they children's lives.  Some of these parents simply stop showing up for visitation and abandon their children altogether.

Long Distance Parenting
When divorced or separated parents do not live close together, the visitation schedule is much more difficult on everyone.  Parents can lose touch with their children if they go a long time without communicating with their children via phone, email, or other forms of virtual visitation.  Children can begin to resent having to miss out on extracurricular activities in order to comply with the noncustodial parent's parenting time.  All of the stresses can lead to the noncustodial parent abandoning the children.

Research during the early 1990's suggested that reasons noncustodial fathers abandoned their relationship with their children "included geographic mobility, remarriage of either parent, inability to establish a workable childrearing arrangement with the former spouse, lack of access due to actions of the former spouse, psychological pain at not being able to see their children in the same manner as before which caused fathers to remove themselves entirely to reduce the pain, and inadequate financial resources." 1

Parental relocation by the custodial parent is a very common issue that correlates with the number of non-custodial parents who have dropped out of their children's lives.  Struggling to maintain a parental bond when in a long-distance parenting relationship is an enourmous logistical and emotional challenge for non-custodial parents and their children.


How can child custody abandonment be reduced?

To reduce instances where children are abandoned by the noncustodial parent, it is important for everyone involved in the custody situation to help the noncustodial parent stay in his or her children's lives.  Committing to a child-centered post-divorce relationship can help to ensure that children of divorce do not have to suffer the damaging psychological issues that can affect them for years after the divorce decree is is signed.  Avoiding parental alienation, being on time to custody exchanges, encouraging children to enjoy their tie with the noncustodial parent, and supplementing parenting time with virtual visitation, are all good tips to help avoid child custody abandonment by the noncustodial parent.

Perhaps one of the best ways to have a healthy post-divorce parenting relationship is to mediate the divorce settlement, rather than litigate the divorce.  A study conducted by Dr. Robert Emery showed compelling results about how mediation during the divorce process can affect the noncustodial parent's relationship with his or her children more than a decade later.  

In Dr. Emery's 12-year study, divorcing parents who used as little as 5 hours of mediation to settle their child custody case, rather than a litigated divorce process, caused nonresidential parents to see their children much more often 12 years later.  28% of nonresident parents who mediated saw their children weekly at the end of the 12-year-period, compared to 9% who litigated.  52% of nonresident parents who mediated their child custody case talked with their children weekly 12 years later, while only 14% of nonresident parents who litigated their child custody case in court talked with their children weekly 12 years later.

Clearly, by attempting to reduce conflict early in the divorce, a path is set to encourage both parents to remain in their children's lives for the duration of their childhoods.

What are the effects of child custody abandonment?

If a spouse abandons the children and leaves all of the responsibility with the remaining parent, the situation results in "de facto" custody.  In cases where a parent abandons the family, a family court may see the situation as a reason to award custody to the remaining parent.

When child custody abandonment occurs, unpaid child support is also a very likely outcome.  Parents who are ordered to pay child support versus those that negotiated and mutually agreed to child support are more likely to be unhappy with what they are being asked to pay.  "Some have suggested that one reason parents do not pay child support is that they cannot monitor or control how the money is spent. Compounding fathers' inability to monitor or control the funds they pay is the fact that at least some of the money goes towards supporting their former spouse or partner and others in the household." 2  This alludes to the idea that it would be wise for divorcing parents to engage in a collaborative divorce, if they wish to be content with the outcome.  By not being collaborative in the divorce, parents are much more likely to feel engaged in conflict and stress for years.


1.  Furstenberg, F.F., Jr. and K.M. Harris. 1992. "The Disappearing American Father? Divorce and the Waning Significance of Biological Parenthood." In Scott J. South and Stewart E. Tolnay, ed. The Changing American Family: Sociological and Demographic Perspectives. Boulder: Westview Press.

2.  McLanahan, Sara and Gary Sandefur. 1994. Growing up with a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 


What is marital abandonment?
Discusses the differences between types of abandonment and provides related resources.
The Effects of Abandonment on Your Marriage and Family
Explains how abandonment or desertion can affect parental rights and child custody.
A must read: a tear-jerking real-life event involving child custody abandonment
It is said that one of the worst things that a can happen to anyone is to have their child dies before them. But never knowing that child until after they are gone may, in fact be more painful.

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